Much like King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Robin the Not-quite-so-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, people all over the various entertainment businesses, including publishing, are searching for the holy grail. And, of course, the holy grail of the entertainment industry is……. the blockbuster detector. Our jobs would be, to put it mildly, just a tad easier if we had some computer program, oracle, or witch who would tell us whether a project was going to be a major hit or a major dud. Even something that were just slightly better than the best guess of the best human prognosticators would revolutionize the publishing industry.
Enter the wisdom of crowds. Also James Surowiecki. In an article for the New Yorker in which he modestly does not even take a smidgen of credit for the increasingly common notion that crowds are the best prognosticators despite being the author of a bestselling book that is perhaps most responsible for the fact that said notion is increasingly common (James, seriously, take a bow!), Surowiecki outlines a new program by Simon and Schuster to use the wisdom of crowds (via the website MediaPredict) to help choose projects that S&S will then publish, experimenting with the idea that a huge group of people will be a better predictor of future success than one individual.
This follows an October 2006 article by Malcolm Gladwell about new attempts to predict a formula for a blockbuster movie.
Ever since I started in publishing, and especially when I read MONEYBALL by Michael Lewis, about my favorite baseball team and its boy-wonder general manager, I’ve been trying to think of what a Sabermetric predictive formula for publishing would look like. What if I could come up with a formula like a publishing OPS that would tell me projects and markets that are undervalued and I could get to them first.
Unfortunately, this isn’t baseball. You can analyze a baseball player’s performance and possibly predict how he will do next season. But books aren’t like that — there’s no clear data before they’re published to predict how they’ll do except everyone’s gut instinct, and then when they’re published the investment has already been made. Books don’t really play in college before they make the Big Leagues.
And whether the big guess about a book’s prospects is from someone off the street, or someone who has spent a lifetime in publishing, or a group of people playing with virtual money on the internet, it’s still a guess based on an incredibly complex combination of the plot, the quality, the author, the cover, the cultural waters, the marketplace, marketing, the tastes of some key players in publishing and in bookstores, word of mouth…. how could you begin to quantify all of that?
But I commend Simon & Schuster for trying something new — anything that can help shed some light on such a mystifying process is fine by me. Now go find me that formula or I shall taunt you a second time.